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No Whites Allowed: Pfizer Fellowship Flagrantly Violates Law, Lawyers Say

‘Breakthrough Fellowship’ prohibits whites and Asians from applying, restriction which is ‘blatantly illegal’

Pfizer headquarters in New York (Getty Images)

Aaron Sibarium • August 30, 2022 5:00 am

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer offers a prestigious scholarship that prohibits whites and Asians from applying. Touted on the company’s website as a “bold move” to “create a workplace for all,” civil rights lawyers characterize it in a different way: as a flagrant violation of the law.

“This Pfizer program is so blatantly illegal that I seriously wonder how it passed internal scrutiny by its general counsel,” said Adam Mortara, one of the nation’s top civil rights attorneys.

Pfizer’s “breakthrough scholarship” provides students with multiple internships, a fully-funded master’s degree, and several years of employment with the pharmaceutical giant. It also limits applications to “Black/African American, Latino/Hispanic, and Native American” students, per the scholarship requirements.

In a Frequently Asked Questions brochure about the nine-year program, Pfizer says it is an “equal opportunity employer.”

Gail Heriot, a member of the US Civil Rights Commission, described the scholarship as a “clear case of liability” under federal law: a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which prohibits racial discrimination in contracts, and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in employment.

“Big corporations seem to have forgotten the law exists,” said Heriot, who is also a law professor at the University of San Diego. “They seem to think that as long as they’re awake they’re bulletproof.”

From a legal point of view, this point of view is debatable. Some companies have abandoned racially sensitive programs following discrimination lawsuits, which, when involving overt racial quotas, are generally successful. Even the threat of a lawsuit can pay dividends: last year, for example, the American Civil Rights Project sent Coca-Cola a letter demanding that it drop the requirement that law firms working with company personnel must have at least 30% of their teams with “various attorneys.” In a note to shareholders in February, Coca-Cola announced that it was waiving that policy.

Each lawyer contacted by the Free Washington Beacon said the case against Pfizer is open and closed. David Bernstein, a civil rights law expert at George Mason University Law School, said the Breakthrough Fellowship was “obviously illegal”. Dan Morenoff, the executive director of the American Civil Rights Project, called it a “very facial violation” of Title VII. Jonathan Berry, a partner at Boyden Gray & Associates, said it was “difficult to see how” the program was legal.

Pfizer did not respond to a request for comment.

The pharmaceutical giant is not the only one to flout the anti-discrimination law. From Uber to NASDAQ to JPMorgan Chase, a kind of casual anarchy has swept across corporate America, with C-suites using — and publicizing — illegal racial quotas to achieve their diversity goals. This trend is particularly acute in Silicon Valley: Google, for example, limits the number of white and Asian men universities can nominate for a prestigious doctorate. scholarship, a policy that effectively encourages schools to violate civil rights laws.

The Breakthrough Fellowship is part of a broader effort within Pfizer to “embed DEI into our DNA,” according to the company’s 2021 Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Report. In 2020, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla made “fairness” one of the company’s four “core values” alongside excellence, courage and joy. “We’re not just talking about the importance of fairness,” Bourla said at the time. “We put our words into action.”

At the heart of these actions is the use of diversity objectives, concrete and legible benchmarks that the company can measure. “By having a clear global DEI vision,” says Pfizer’s 2021 Annual Review, “we are able to define distinct DEI roles and responsibilities, align our therapeutic areas and divisions with our vision, and assess our progress against measurable results”.

Although not a formal quota system, this metrics-based approach has nonetheless produced dramatic and disproportionate results. In 2021, the ESG report states that “72% of summer interns surveyed were identified as representing an underrepresented group or disadvantaged background, far exceeding our goal of 50%.” By comparison, non-whites make up less than 40% of the US population.

The Breakthrough scholarship appears to contribute to this bias. The program’s first cohort was “55% female and 45% male,” according to the annual review, “with a diversity breakdown of 40% Black/African American, 40% Latinx/Hispanic, and 20 % of two or more breeds”. Pfizer plans to have 100 Breakthrough Fellows by 2025.

Asked about the company’s claim to be an equal opportunity employer, Berry, Boyden Gray’s lawyer, used the term “doublespeak”.

“If you close certain job opportunities to the ‘wrong race,’ you’re not an equal opportunity,” Berry said. “You are a fanatic.”

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